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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, like most speakers in the debate, I, too, welcome large parts of the Bill. Like my noble distant kinsman, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, I have trudged the inner areas of the Cities of London and Westminsterhoping to stand, in those days, for the LCCand I know the difficulties involved in such areas. The Bill tackles none of the major problems that it should probably tackle. It is, so to speak, a holding Bill, but my party and I would very much welcome the involvement of the issues of proportional representation and voting at age 16 .
The problem that I wish to raise today is state funding of political parties, which is relatively limited in the United Kingdom. Parliamentary groupings of representatives receive fundsfor example, Short or Cranborne moneys or equivalentsto support work within parliaments or assemblies. At election times there is support in kind, most notably the provision of free postal facilities.
Policy development grants were introduced by the 2000 Act and are administered by the Electoral Commission. Their genesis lay in the Neill committee report of 1998. Their aim is to support policy development within political parties. Grants are made annually from an overall pot of £2 million. The three largest parties in the House of Commons each receive a grant of more than £400,000, with the remainder shared by smaller groups.
The grants are restricted to parties with two or more Members in the House of Commons, in line with the Neill committee recommendation. However, since that report was produced in 1998, there has been devolution in each of the three smaller countries in the UK and the European elections have been conducted by proportional representation. This has resulted in parties with no representation in the House of Commons now securing representation at other tiers of government. For example, the Scottish Green Party has seven MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, while the Green Party of England and Wales has two MEPs to complement dozens of local authority councillors. I today entertained to lunch in one of the restaurants in this building a representative of the Green Party of England and Wales on the Greater London Assembly. On all these bodies we have two representatives to complement dozens of local authority councillors.
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However, representation in a legislature other than the House of Commons is not recognised by the policy development grant scheme. The Electoral Commission has recognised that the qualifying criteria set out by the Neill committee have been overtaken by events. In its report The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom in December 2004, the Electoral Commission recommended that,
"so that parties with at least two members elected to either the House of Commons, European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales or Northern Ireland Assembly would be eligible to receive a share of such funding".
The process of devolution and introduction of new voting systems has brought new political diversity to the UK. That diversity reflects increasing plurality of choices made by voters. If state funding is to be provided in a limited formas with policy development grantsit should support that diversity. Continuation of the status quo might be construed as suffocating that diversity, which will do little to enhance the already tarnished reputation of political institutions and parties. In particular, it would be unseemly for the UK Houses of Parliament to support a status quo that benefited only Members who sat in the House of Commons. Conversely, an initiative that showed that the UK Parliament could look beyond immediate party interests and take account of the role to be played by new voices in UK politics would be one small step along the long road of restoring faith in the idea of politics for the wider good.
I regret very much that the Committee stage of the Bill will not take place on the Floor of the House. I will therefore put down an amendment and argue for that situation to be rectified. Apart from that, I wish the Bill success in its passage through your Lordships' House.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I want to address two narrow areas of the Bill. Before doing so, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward a measure that I believe is extremely important. I also pay tribute to those Members of this House, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others on his Benches, who have pressed for this legislation for a long time.
The particular areas that I want to deal with are, first, Clause 9 and the duties placed on local authorities, and secondly, the issues raised in Clause 14 on individual identifiers and in Clauses 15, 16 and 17 on pilots.
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In Clause 9, I think that we have come up with an arrangement that will crack the problem of under-registration nationally. As a way forward, local registration officers should look to subsections (2)(c) and (d). Subsection (2)(c) refers to,
The Secretary of State has also retained the right to amend further those duties under subsection (3)(a), (b) and (c) by varying, inserting or repealing any paragraphs. The powers under Clause 9 are sufficient to deal with what I can only regard as a major problem nationally of under-registration, which certainly surfaced during the previous general election.
However, I have immense reservations about Clauses 15, 16, 17 and 18. We should think again about those. She will know that I have been speaking about these issues to Ministers from this department in the House of Commons, and I do not want to go into great detail this evening on what my recommendations have been, if I might modestly put it that way.
However, there is overwhelming hostility throughout the system to the idea of pilots. There is hostility in the Electoral Commission. Sam Younger has told those of us whom he has met that he is hostile to the pilots. There is hostility within the Liberal Democrat Party, as expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, during the debate. There is immense hostility within the Labour Party. We need not go into the reasons today, but I think that Members of the House will not find it too difficult to estimate what those reservations are about. Those concerns need to be revisited.
One area of the pilots worries me in particular. Paragraphs 98 to 100 of the Explanatory Notes, relating to Clause 16, state that the Electoral Commission will have to evaluate the success of those pilots in around 2008. The criteria for evaluation are set out in the legislation. The Explanatory Notes state,
The problem is that this body, which every Member of the House will recognise as independent, has already committed itself completely to the principle of national rollout. Evidence of that is set out in the commission's briefing to this House of 6 February, which states:
"We remain concerned however that the Bill does not make provision for full individual registration to replace the outdated household registration system, which is open to abuse and error. Individual registration is both desirable in principle and vital as a means of underpinning the security of postal voting. It would allow voters to participate with confidence in the electoral process".
"We believe that the Bill should be amended so as to move immediately to the collection and use of personal identifiers in the whole country, rather than an initial piloting stage. We believe that the case has been made for this to happen and that failure to do so may lead to more fraud tainted elections".
It is absolutely committed. We are placing the Electoral Commission in an impossible position. How can it objectively evaluate these pilots and perhaps even recommend that they come to an end? It cannot possibly suggest or recommend the winding-up of a system because it is committed to national rollout. It is being placed in an impossible position. I do not know whether that is part of the reason for its opposition to pilots. It tells us that it simply wants to go to national registration now, and we have to believe what it says, but it might be concerned that it will be placed in a position of having to challenge the national rollout arrangements that it suggests in its oral and written briefings to Members both of the House of Commons and of this House. I ask the Minister to think through the consequences before we go down this route.
We do not know whether it will be this Parliament, or indeed this Government, that will deal with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. It might need time to evaluate the pilots, because it will not be reporting on them before 2008. Therefore, this process might be outside our influence. I am worried that the wrong decision will ultimately be taken.
It is with this in mind that I have today tabled some amendments which would establish a completely different arrangement for dealing with this problem. I know that in principle parts of my amendments will carry the support of Liberal Democrat Members because they have already addressed some of the issues that I seek to raise. On Report in the House of Commons, David Heath tabled a very interesting amendment based on briefing given to him. He wrote the amendments himself, although he is not a lawyer; his amendments had to be tidied up, but he tried his best. But his amendment on the transitional arrangement, which in my amendment I do not necessarily regard as transitional, forms a small part of my amendment, which sets the matter in a wider context.
My amendments will be on the Marshalled List tomorrow. I hope that my noble friend will not simply reject them today. I do not intend to press them to a vote at any stage, in Committee or on Report; I simply want the Government to think through whether they provide for a better system of dealing with a problem that exists only in isolated parts of the United Kingdom. My argument is that we do not have to roll the system out nationwide. This is not a nationwide problem. It can be dealt with completely differently. I hope that my noble friend can treat these matters as I suggest, as objectively as possible in the circumstances.
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